Bourbon Country

Rachael at Raven Run Preserve - Photo by Tim Giller
Rachael at Raven Run Preserve - Photo by Tim Giller

Kentucky surely deserved more time. On the back roads that Squatch prefers every curve was a picture postcard of the greenest grass a Nevada boy ever saw and striking black barns each with a unique quilt pattern mounted upon its upper eave and matching black fences curving across the rolling hillsides enclosing well bred horses. We had to start making our way towards Virginia and Washington D.C. but we did manage to make the most of a short visit.

Throughout this well manicured countryside are pockets of preserved native habitat more or less intact. As in many places, our forbearers managed to bring uninvited plant and animal guests some of whom aggressively overcrowd the locals. This is how we found ourselves joining a wonderful group on a Sierra Club outing to hack, pull and lop back as much invasive honeysuckle as we could in Raven Run Nature Preserve on the outskirts of Lexington. Like much of the region this is not primeval wilderness, people homesteaded here and worked the land to make a living. But that was an era when Americans had a generally lighter hand leaving plenty of native ecosystem to be nourished by folks like those we got to share the better part of a beautiful spring day working with.

Yeast vat -Photo by Tim Giller
Yeast vat -Photo by Tim Giller

To be fair there was another compelling reason to visit Kentucky, our mutual fondness of Bourbon. Some friends might say I have more than a casual interest in whiskey, but there was a bit of ecology to research as we discovered by touring a couple distilleries. Contrary to popular wisdom, bourbon does not need be made in Kentucky, anywhere in the U.S. qualifies but limestone rich aquifers such as you find in Kentucky are necessary. When one guide told of how the distillery shuts down for a couple months during the summer because the cooling river waters get too warm, I decided not to interrupt his polished monologue to ask if he was worried that climate change might give them more months of warm river water. We also learned that fermenting vats and ageing barrels are made with specific woods chosen for the characteristics they impart to the bourbon. Sourcing of these can be challenging, as some of these woods are getting hard to come by due to over harvesting. However, even though an aging barrel can only be used once for bourbon these valuable barrels have a number of secondary uses such as wine, beer and scotch making, and repurposing as furniture and other products. The spent grains are also passed on as livestock feed.

Redbud with blackened stems
Redbud with blackened stems

By far the most interesting thing we learned was that trees, shrubs and buildings near a distillery become blackened by the airborne off gassing. When we were told that prohibition agents used this fact to search for hidden backwoods stills, we came up with a theory that the barns of Kentucky were painted black to disguise illegal distilleries, though we couldn’t find anyone who thought this was true. Disappointingly none of the distillery folks seemed to know the actual reason for this blackening. Baudoinia compniacensis, is a black sac fungus that prefers habitat with broad temperature and humidity shifts such as are produced by distilleries, but it especially thrives on the airborne ethanol. They are apparently harmless to the trees and structures that they coat in vast black colonies. Maybe the bourbon producers think that fungus is bad PR for their industry. But I think that the truth of these little alcohol loving microorganisms is more interesting than telling us that the trees are drunk.